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YC startup Felix wants to replace antibiotics with programmable viruses

Right now the world is at war. But this is no ordinary war. It’s a fight with an organism so small we can only detect it through use of a microscope — and if we don’t stop it, it could kill millions of us in the next several decades. No, I’m not talking about COVID-19, though that organism is the one on everyone’s mind right now. I’m talking about antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

You see, more than 700,000 people died globally from bacterial infections last year — 35,000 of them in the U.S. If we do nothing, that number could grow to 10 million annually by 2050, according to a United Nations report.

The problem? Antibiotic overuse at the doctor’s office or in livestock and farming practices. We used a lot of drugs over time to kill off all the bad bacteria — but it only killed off most, not all, of the bad bacteria. And, as the famous line from Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park goes, “life finds a way.”

Enter Felix, a biotech startup in the latest Y Combinator batch that thinks it has a novel approach to keeping bacterial infections at bay – viruses.

Phage killing bacteria in a petri dish

It seems weird in a time of widespread concern over the corona virus to be looking at any virus in a good light but as co-founder Robert McBride explains it, Felix’s key technology allows him to target his virus to specific sites on bacteria. This not only kills off the bad bacteria but can also halt its ability to evolve and once more become resistant.

But the idea to use a virus to kill off bacteria is not necessarily new. Bacteriophages, or viruses that can “infect” bacteria, were first discovered by an English researcher in 1915 and commercialized phage therapy began in the U.S. in the 1940’s through Eli Lilly and Company. Right about then antibiotics came along and Western scientists just never seemed to explore the therapy further.

However, with too few new solutions being offered and the standard drug model not working effectively to combat the situation, McBride believes his company can put phage therapy back at the forefront.

Already Felix has tested its solution on an initial group of 10 people to demonstrate its approach.

Felix researcher helping cystic fibrosis patient Ella Balasa through phage therapy

“We can develop therapies in less time and for less money than traditional antibiotics because we are targeting orphan indications and we already know our therapy can work in humans,” McBride told TechCrunch . “We argue that our approach, which re-sensitizes bacteria to traditional antibiotics could be a first line therapy.”

Felix plans to deploy its treatment for bacterial infections in those suffering from cystic fibrosis first as these patients tend to require a near constant stream of antibiotics to combat lung infections.

The next step will be to conduct a small clinical trial involving 30 people, then, as the scientific research and development model tends to go, a larger human trial before seeking FDA approval. But McBride hopes his viral solution will prove itself out in time to help the coming onslaught of antibiotic resistance.

“We know the antibiotic resistant challenge is large now and is only going to get worse,” McBride said. “We have an elegant technological solution to this challenge and we know our treatment can work. We want to contribute to a future in which these infections do not kill more than 10 million people a year, a future we can get excited about.”

Facebook purges more ‘bad actors’ in Myanmar but it still won’t commit to a local office

As Facebook continues to grasp the severity of the situation in Myanmar, where the UN has concluded that its social network plays “determining role” in inciting genocide, the U.S. tech giant has completed a third sweep in recent months to remove bad actors from its platform.

Facebook said late Tuesday U.S. time that it has removed a total of 135 Facebook accounts, 425 Pages, 17 Groups and an additional 15 Instagram accounts with this latest piece of action.

Facebook has around 20 million users in Myanmar — that’s nearly all of the country’s internet users and nearly 40 percent of the population — and it gave some stats on the reach that it has now nullified:

  • Approximately 2.5 million people followed at least one of these Facebook Pages
  • Approximately 6,400 people belonged to at least one of these Facebook Groups
  • Approximately 1,300 people followed at least one these Instagram accounts

This is Facebook’s third such cull in recent months. Its previous removals impacted some high-profile individuals including Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, commander-in-chief of the armed forces, and the military-owned Myawady television network were removed from the social network following “evidence [that they] committed or enabled serious human rights abuses in the country.”

What’s notable about this newest action is that the company said it took action because of “the behavior of these actors rather than on the type of content they were posting.”

We’re waiting for further confirmation on exactly what that means, but acting irrespective of posted content would represent an interesting change in its policing, and it could impact Facebook’s efforts in Myanmar — and other areas — going forward.

Nearly everyone who has internet access in Myanmar uses Facebook, giving it an estimated user base of around 20 million. AFP PHOTO / Nicolas ASFOURI / Getty Images

That’s promising but, unfortunately, it appears that Facebook is still reluctant to commit to opening a local office in Myanmar. That’s something that local civic groups on the ground in Myanmar — who have worked with Facebook to improve the situation — have called a key requirement for meaningful progress.

“How many companies have 20 million users in one country but don’t have a single employee, it’s absurd,” Jes Petersen — CEO of accelerator firm Phandeeyar, which is part of the advisory group — told TechCrunch last month. “An office would go a long way to building relationships with stakeholders.”

Facebook declined to comment on the possibility of a Myanmar-based office when we asked.

The company has pledged to increase the number of Burmese translators working on Myanmar-based content to 100 by the end of this year. It has said a number of times that it is working on AI-based solutions, too, but cracks still appear.

We more than 100 people reported a racist #Burmese #Facebook profile as it names “Dog Allah”. After few days, Facebook replied us that “it doesn’t go against one of our specific community standard”.

Facebook is still allowing #HateSpeech in Myanmar against #Rohingya & #Muslim pic.twitter.com/NfMdwHZb8a

— Yar Tin (@YarTin7) November 18, 2018

Equally, while reaching 100 translators means Facebook has more than doubled its Burmese-compliant content checking contingent, the figure is dwarfed by others. Myanmar’s army reportedly has 700 people working on its own Facebook strategy.

For instance one source told us Myanmar’s military has up to 700 troops working on Facebook. The company hopes to have 100 content reviewers for Myanmar by the end of the year. It has other teams doing safety and security, but there’s a definite mismatch.

— Paul Mozur (@paulmozur) October 15, 2018

Sources familiar with the company’s thinking told TechCrunch that Facebook is concerned that “there would be real risks involved” if it were to open an office, “including the potential for increased government leverage on content and data requests as well as potential risks to Facebook’s employees.”

That response is backed, according to the sources, by the findings of a BSR report that was released last month.

If this is consistent with the company’s strategy then it is troubling because that doesn’t tell the whole truth of what is a very nuanced issue.

While it is correct that the report did mention the potential risks associated with an office — around both the safety of staff and potential for government pressure — the conclusion wasn’t that Facebook shouldn’t open the office. It was that there are “advantages and disadvantages” to it doing so.

So you could equally argue that it should open an office if you choose to focus the positive argument from the report.

More generally, it is certainly ironic that Facebook is (partially) citing insight from a report that it controversially released on the eve of the U.S. mid-term elections, a move that many took as an effort to bury the findings while the news cycle was focused on a key political moment.

While it may not get the same press attention as Russian-backed U.S. election meddling, the Facebook-Myanmar situation is a key one to watch in 2019. Facebook is the de facto internet in Southeast Asia and other emerging markets so its influence extends beyond anything people in Western markets can begin to imagine.

UN officials blast Facebook over spread of Rohingya hate speech

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Facebook has long been criticised for its role in the Rohingya crisis, an assessment now underscored by comments by United Nations investigators.

Marzuki Darusman, chairman of the UN Independent International Fact-Finding Mission in Myanmar told reporters that social media had a “determining role” in spreading hate speech in the country, according to Reuters.

“It has … substantively contributed to the level of acrimony and dissension and conflict, if you will, within the public. Hate speech is certainly of course a part of that. As far as the Myanmar situation is concerned, social media is Facebook, and Facebook is social media,” Darusman said. Read more…

More about Tech, Facebook, United Nations, Social Media, and Myanmar

ELLE's new video challenging gender stereotypes is going viral for all the right reasons

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Gender inequality has been a subject of much debate and discourse in India. While the country’s popular arts and entertainment tend to reinforce gender stereotypes, some socially-conscious advertising of late has managed to break the clutter. 

One such example is the #UnGender series by ELLE India. 

In partnership with WEvolve, a global campaign that brings men and women together to address gender inequality using art and media, it has released a video that subtly captures the daily struggles of Indian women in a gender-unequal society. Read more…

More about Women S Issues, Women S Rights, Social Issues, United Nations, and India

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